Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

"Soft Power" at Sea: Zheng He and China's Maritime Diplomacy

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

"Soft Power" at Sea: Zheng He and China's Maritime Diplomacy

Article excerpt

As China turns its gaze seaward in search of prosperity and energy security, it has embarked on a naval buildup unprecedented in the nation's modern history. To ease worries about its intentions and to amass "soft power" in the littoral regions of East, Southeast, and South Asia, Beijing has enlisted Zheng He (1371-1433), the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) "eunuch admiral" who commanded seven voyages of trade and discovery in these waters, setting sail for the first such cruise six centuries ago. While China's Zheng He narrative is not "good history" for a variety of reasons, it has proved to be effective diplomacy. It behooves the United States to recognize this trend in Chinese diplomacy if it hopes to sustain its position as Asia's leading maritime power.

Introduction

For a glimpse of China's future on the high seas, consider Beijing's search for a usable maritime past--a past it is using to advance present-day political aims. (1) The Chinese leadership's creative use of history is seemingly lost on the Pentagon, which in its 2005 annual report on The Military Power of the People's Republic of China confesses that "direct insights into China's national strategies are difficult to acquire," owing to the secretive nature of the Chinese political system. The report takes stock of official policy and strategy statements from Beijing, as well as the force structure that is rapidly taking shape at Chinese shipyards and defense installations. (2) Pentagon analysts must continue to devote their analytical energies to such appraisals, but Chinese diplomacy and military affairs cannot be understood in material terms alone. Ideas matter, and so does history. Absent this wider understanding, Washington could misjudge China's motives and the actions they inspire, and it could see America's standing in the region deteriorate as a result.

A figure from Chinese maritime history furnishes one of the "direct insights" the Pentagon craves. Zheng He (1371-1433), the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) "eunuch admiral," commanded seven voyages of trade and discovery in Southeast and South Asian waters between 1405 and 1433. Today he is shaping China's maritime orientation and grand strategy while at the same time presenting Beijing a useful diplomatic implement. Capitalizing on the six hundredth anniversary of the first cruise of Zheng's "treasure fleet"--so dubbed for the silks, porcelains, and other valuables it carried to trade with foreign peoples--China's contemporary leadership has woven an intricate narrative vis-a-vis fellow Asian nations, portraying the swift ascent of Chinese economic, military, and naval power as merely the latest phase in a benign regional dominance that had its origins in the Ming era. In this narrative, a resurgent China benefits all of maritime Asia today, just as it did in the age of Ming supremacy.

Why mount such a diplomatic charm offensive? As China turns its gaze to nearby seas in search of prosperity and secure energy supplies, it has embarked on a naval buildup unprecedented in the nation's modern history. Beijing evidently hopes to allay any suspicions aroused by its bid for sea power. In so doing, it hopes to discourage the coastal nations of East, Southeast, and South Asia from banding together--or with powerful outsiders such as the United States--to balance the growth of Chinese power. (3) At home, Chinese leaders summon up Zheng He to help turn the attention of the populace seaward, rousing rank-and-file citizens for seafaring pursuits. Maritime history, in short, now suffuses Chinese politics abroad and at home.

The Voyages of Zheng He

Students and practitioners of international affairs group the tools of national power into four loose categories. The first three--diplomatic, economic, and military--are fairly straightforward; the fourth, which is variously known as cultural or "soft" power, less so. Soft power refers to the cultural attributes, ideas, and policies that make a nation attractive to other peoples and countries, creating an atmosphere of goodwill that helps its leaders muster support for their foreign-policy initiatives. …

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